Tuesday, December 23, 2014

By land, water and air

published 21 July 2014
Everybody who is old enough to remember would have his or her own story about that earthquake on July 16, 1990.
I sure do. I was in second year high school at that time. We had just finished Mass at school; the class and club officers had just been inducted were waiting for their turns to get photographed at the stage. The auditorium was at the fourth floor of the four-story building. I was standing by the window with another staff of the school paper when the earth shook. Prior to that, I had no experience of strong tremor (just one or two weak, quick ones) so it took me awhile to acknowledge what was really happening.
Quickly we headed for the stairs and for the open field. And then it was over and everybody scrambled to get home. In those days, there were no cell phones and even pagers. We did not have a landline at home (application took years). I can imagine the uncertainty and anxiety felt by our families, just waiting for us to come home.
It was only after a few days that we came to terms with the loss and damage wrought by the earthquake. If it had been a jolting experience for us in Metro Manila, it was far deadlier up north—in Baguio, in Cabanatuan, and other places. The death toll rose to more than 1,600. There were also haunting images on television— collapsed buildings, people trapped in the rubble with no way to get out, and widespread displacement.
The quake measured 7.8 on the scale with epicenter near the town of Rizal, Nueva Ecija. It was said to have been caused by a strike-slip movement along the Philippine Fault and the Digdig Fault, part of the Philippine Fault System. 
And today we are being warned that another big quake is due anytime, perhaps in our lifetime, perhaps in our kids’. There are forecasts that place the death toll in the hundreds of thousands should a quake hit Metro Manila.
Are we prepared? Are our buildings and other structures strong enough? Do we have the necessary systems in place so that we, and our leaders, would know what to do in its immediate aftermath?    
Exactly 24 years later, on July 16, 2014—last Wednesday—another natural disaster battered the country. This time it was typhoon Glenda (international name Rammasun which also pummeled some parts of China afterwards) bringing with it winds of up to 120 kilometers per hour with gusts of 165 kph.
The Bicol provinces felt the effects earlier, on Tuesday afternoon, when the Glenda made landfall there. Overnight and onto the following morning, it crossed southern Luzon and Metro Manila and then Bataan before exiting the Philippine area of responsibility.                 
Actual damages are still being tallied but the reports and photos —and ensuing utilities breakdown afterwards—are testament to Glenda’s fury.
Typhoons occasion chilling memories for Filipinos people. Most recently there was Yolanda, which killed thousands and displaced millions, aside from damaging billions in infrastructure, agriculture and livelihood in several provinces. It brought storm surges—something many of us had not been familiar with, which washed away entire communities.
Unfortunately, the Yolanda experience also highlighted how politics could mess with the supposedly non-partisan efforts to save lives, help survivors, and help victim gets back on their feet.
Did we learn the lessons and apply them to Glenda? Can we use them for the next disasters? It’s a certainty: there will be earthquakes and typhoons just as strong or even stronger than what we have experienced. These are different times, more difficult times. We have to go beyond traditional ways of looking at disasters and find a way to anticipate them, mitigate them, refuse to be distracted by other fleeting, self-aggrandizing concerns.
That people become collateral damage to senseless conflict is shown by what happened to that Malaysian Airlines plane that was brought down by a missile in Eastern Ukraine. Nearly 300 people lost their lives, including three Filipinos—a mother and her two children. 
How the crash investigation is being conducted, or not being conducted, has been problematic. As of Sunday afternoon, there were reports of Ukrainian rebels denying probers full access to the site, and of the deceased passengers placed in body bags on the side of the road, and later moved into an undisclosed location. It’s a geo-political issue that could have other dire consequences if not handled well, but it’s the individual stories of the passengers, and the haunting photos of their belongings, that are most heartbreaking. 
Sometimes is is easy to get absorbed with proving ourselves superior, or at least more right, than the other party. What come to mind are the clashes between the branches of government and the popularity contest with the next elections in mind, or, in the global scene, the need to have control of a particular territory as a showcase of power and influence.
All these however should be secondary to the fact that there are real people out there who do not have to die senselessly and needlessly. One life carries the same value everywhere. No life must be ignored, endangered or sacrificed just to prove a point.
There are things we cannot control, sure. But there are more things we can, and we should always use that power mindfully.

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